Progress and Attainment

Article by Wayne Coger from the Summer 2009 Newsletter.

A June morning, cool and fragrant with late spring blossom. Tall grasses wave in a gentle breeze; the broad meadows are dotted with buttercups and daisies. The forests and fields of the surrounding hills are deep and green and swollen with new growth.

This has been a spring of almost constant rain — storms and showers follow the occasional sunny day. Walking on the driveway to the creek, the footsteps soft in the muddy gravel, one can already hear the roar of water and rocks. Looking down the steep embankment — what a surge of bubbling, spraying, sparkling water! Running over great sheets of gray-green slate, around and under fallen trees and large boulders, tumbling down a cascade — nothing seems to impede the energy and flow of the water.

Looking at this scene one can remember other times when the creek was a mere trickle, a thin stream of water. Where there are now great clear pools there were once silt-clogged puddles. One can reason, without much difficulty, that the creek is full this year because of the constant rain, because of the saturation of our hardpan soil. It is possible to imagine the headwaters of the creek, the wetlands to the north. It is also possible to visualize the creek’s downstream junction with a larger creek and that creek’s eventual union with a narrow deep lake.

It is difficult, however, to believe that the creek knows anything of this. It is hard to imagine that the creek could, for even a moment, conceive of itself as a creek. Nor would it know of its origin or destination. Moving, flowing, carving and eroding — constantly changing.

Are we sometimes free — not from knowledge itself — but from our identification with the capacity to know, the picture of ourselves as the knower? Seeing the dancing waters, breathing the cool misty air, feeling wet drops from the overhanging branches — seeing, being with all of this, simply and directly. The thoughts and memories that do come up do not have to interfere with direct seeing. We can be with whatever presents itself in a very simple and unadorned way.

In what people call spiritual work, in meditation and inquiry, in the struggle to understand ourselves in the deepest and most profound sense, there is often a tendency to look for confirmation, for signs of progress and attainment. Growing up in a culture that emphasizes education and work as a means to fulfillment we become very conscious of the symbols of success. If we are smart and diligent we are rewarded with good grades and the beaming approval of our parents and teachers. If we are athletic we win trophies and other honors. In these and myriad other ways we are able to become someone, to feel a part of our society. Some of us, unable or unwilling to compete, may have found our identity in rebellion, but that is in essence the same movement, to find one’s niche.

Growing older, maturing, we feel that we become the roles that we have prepared for. We become artists or teachers, doctors, lawyers or carpenters. We become partners, spouses, parents, members of a community. And perhaps at some point the question arises, “Is this all there is? The roles, the striving, the becoming?” Is there something deeper, an in-touchness, a free and unconditioned being? Compelling questions about the nature of life and the inevitability of death may haunt us, despite our efforts to distract ourselves with work and entertainment.

Allowing these and other questions to bubble up — is this not the work of meditation? Entering these questions with passion, care and patience, avoiding the deep ruts of tradition and authority, we might experience, at times, an opening, a new-ness, a break from our conditioned thoughts and images. In these moments of openness, is there any movement? Are we progressing, going from a lower to a higher state? Or are we here — not as anyone special — simply breathing, pulsing, being. To dream of progress, to relish our achievements, the security of our attainment — this takes the distancing qualities of thought and imagination. A moment of presence does not demand anything. Everything is here as it is, complete.

Early in a quiet retreat people will often report incredibly knotty problems in home and work rela- tionships. Often later in the retreat the same people will report that the problems simply disappeared. People often laugh with a little embarrassment, remembering the seeming enormity of their concerns. Do we solve these problems or do we simply see things clearly — see the nature of a wonderfully creative and yet often confused mind. Is it enough to meet the confusion, meet it without further comment or judgment, to avoid the rush to find solutions?

Is there always a possibility to look freshly, whenever we find ourselves caught in a thought-created web? If we believe that we have attained something, that we are done with the self-center and its attendant difficulties, then we are stuck in that belief. Seeing is not connected to the past, even to past insights, no matter how profound or freeing they might have seemed at the time. The work, the seeing is here — looking at what calls for attention now.

At other times we may bemoan our lack of progress. Years of sitting, working, questioning — and still the selfish thoughts arise, the competitive drives, the fears, the simmering or fiery anger. Is it clear that the thought, “I should be done with all of this,” is an impediment to the immediacy of fresh looking? Anger, fear — whatever arises — is beckoning for fresh attention.

When I am enmeshed in the instability and insecurity of the me world, the only option seems to be to strive for something better. What thought then creates is a new image, a better person. Perhaps I model myself after or compare myself with those I take to be more compassionate or more spiritually advanced beings. Dreaming, striving, comparing, I miss the opportunity to explore instability and insecurity as it manifests itself, to learn about the nuances and ways of this body/mind — not to become more interesting to myself, but to really find out how I am, how I fall into the same traps again and again. Not blaming myself or anyone else for falling, but looking gently and carefully at what presents itself.

Looking up from the computer screen, a gentle breeze is stirring the leaves in the treetops. The rain has stopped and the sun is shining through broken clouds. The sound of the creek is softer. Field grasses and wildflowers sparkle. Might self-concern begin, in an unbounded and timeless moment, to quiet itself? It is in these moments of self-forgetting that warmth and affection and love may truly flower.